National Young Writers’ Festival: Stories, Smoke Machines and Yoof

Greetings readers. Apologies for the ridiculously long time between posts. I have been away on holiday for three weeks, a terrible thing to do because one inevitably has to come home again. However, I was lucky enough to spend the weekend up in Newcastle for the NYWF. There is nothing better than spending time talking with intelligent people about writing, especially when one has a microphone.

Just to clear up any misconceptions, a writers’ festival is not where a writer stands beside piles of their own book, with a microphone and amp, spruiking like a verbose and vaguely hipster version of a Bing Lee salesperson at Christmastime. Rather a large group of verbose and overtly hipster people gather to discuss various topics to do with writing, whilst other people listen. It’s more fun than it sounds. There’s beer involved.

Amongst the vastly talented people I heard speak and even spoke to (!) were Lachlan Brown, Summer Land, Amy Gray, Pip Smith, Kaitlyn Plyley, Eliza Sarlos, Tom Ballard… You get the idea. It was pretty much the best weekend of my entire life. But the best part? The students doing the Younger Young Writers’ program. They were the most annoyingly talented teenagers I have ever met and it would be easy to hate them but for the fact they were so unrelentingly eager.

I found these young folk particularly endearing. Probably something to do with the fact that they wrote down nearly everything I said, which has never happened to me outside of a cafe/restaurant environment. On Saturday myself and several other writers spent a few hours workshopping some of their stories and giving life advice like: ‘Ignore everything your parents/teachers advise you and study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Abandon your plans to become a lawyer and instead study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Some universities will throw money at you to get you to come study with them’ and ‘Being a writer is the most important and rewarding job in the universe and writers are fabulous people’. The last couple may or may not be true, but the students seemed to believe us.

I’m going to sound terribly old (as opposed to when I shouted at one of them, ‘Tori Amos is the greatest vocalist to have ever lived! You need to listen to Little Earthquakes IMMEDIATELY! I have it on tape!!!’) but I really wish I had the chance to do something like the YYW program when I was at school. The closest thing for us was Tornament of the Minds where six of us were selected to be locked in a room at a university for three hours and come up with a pantomine based around a Shakespeare quote; with only a packet of pipe cleaners and an old toilet roll to make all our costumes and set. After which we would perform our ‘play’ for a panel of judges including academics from said university. I was eleven. Torment of the Minds would have been a more apt title.

It seemed like when I was in school everything was either a competition or a test. As part of the Younger Young Writers’ program, these kids got to spend four days listening to writers speak about their work, interspersed with writing sessions where they got to work on their own stuff. The material they worked on was workshopped with professional writers. No one gave them a score. No one attributed a number or percentage to them based on their work. They weren’t shut in a room, seated in rows and told to produce a piece of creative writing  while the clock ticked and a supervisor paced. How the hell are you supposed to be creative under those conditions, let alone inspired?

The YYW program was a format that seemed to suit all sorts of personalities: the extroverts who ranted about their loathing of post modernism; the quiet ones who scribbled with a hand covering their work; the ones who can read that elf language that Tolkien made up. The writing that I read showed they had felt confident enough to experiment and go with their instincts, something that is very difficult to achieve in a classroom. We discussed Harry Potter and Austen. We argued about Fantasy and musical theatre. Their writing was clever and self aware. Some of it was witty, some downright scary – I read a sentence in one student’s horror story which made my stomach turn.

At various events held by the National Young Writers’ Festival I heard a lot of inspiring people discuss everything from the impact of isolation on creativity, to how not to be a douche when ones career starts to take off. I read and listened to short stories in the tunnels of Fort Scratchley with Penguin Plays Rough and met amazing people at the festival party with an over-active smoke machine. But – and I think you can guess where I’m going with this – the best part was sitting and talking to those kids talk about writing.

Bring on YYW 2014.

Deer Dairy: blogs, diary writing and appalling spelling

Social media is the death of society, no? There been loads of studies by people with Ph.Ds banging on about how we don’t communicate properly anymore. Apparently our only fulfilling relationships are with our communication devices rather than with the people they are designed to enable us to communicate with. (Note, I am generally referring to electronic gadgets such as phones, tablet thingies etc. Far less people are believed to be attached to their morse-code devices.)

I listened to a Radio National program this morning (it appears I have become a grown-up at some stage) which discussed social media’s relationship to the demise of writers’ diaries. Writers’ diaries being those fabled, leather-bound objects bursting with page after page of scrawled inner-thoughts, many of them private at the time of writing. These private, presumably genius, insights into the human condition are usually ‘unearthed’ after their writer’s death and promptly published for all the world to read. Yes Virginia Woolf was intensely private, but look! Here’s all her innermost dreams, fears and desires now downloadable from Amazon for only $3.99!

I suspect that if a similar fate were to befall my daily scribblings, the majority of the said book would be about the bread and Diet Coke that simply MUST be purchased post-haste. Do reminders scrawled on ones hand count? I wonder if Ms Wolfe referred to lists scrawled on her arm in biro. (Were biros around in her time? Questions, questions!)

Finish Mrs Dalloway

Remind Leonard to fix the tap

Buy gin

And what of the young folk? Do they still keep diaries locked with a flimsy keys hidden under their mattresses? (I kept one such treasure trove which today only stands as a testament to my appalling spelling skills and my relentless monitoring of Tim McCallum’s hairstyles, rather than pithy insights into the human condition.)  Now that they have FaceKick, Twitter and SMS and all that, do kids still keep journals or write letters to each other? DO THEY EVEN KNOW HOW TO HOLD A PENCIL?

For the entirety of years seven and eight my BFF and I kept an exercise book in which we wrote letters to each other. The cover was a contacted collage of teddy bears and pictures of a pre-teen Leonardo DiCaprio torn from Girlfriend magazine. We would take turns writing in it at home and bring it to school to hand over. I remember all too clearly the time it was confiscated by our Science teacher after we were sprung reading it in class. How dare you indulge in the sordid practice of daily handwritten communication, thereby improving your writing and general comprehension skills!!!! (The Science teacher did not speak like this, unfortunately.) I kept up my own journal writing for years afterwards: mainly declarations of love for various unworthy males, complaints about my physical appearance and complaints generally.

I don’t keep a journal anymore. But I do blog. And the knowledge that what I write may have an audience  generally keeps the standard higher and stops me droning on endlessly about the size of my thighs and how many pieces of banana bread I have or have not eaten. And that can only be a good thing.

It also ensures that I write whenever I can. If I set myself the vague goal to post a good few paragraphs once a week, I do my best to meet it. If I was only writing for myself, no doubt in one of the multitudes of overpriced notebooks I have purchased from Pentimento, I wouldn’t manage once a month. The fact that all those notebooks are still mostly empty only proves this.

ImageBut what if the knowledge of future publication sensors my brain and stops me getting to the pithy stuff? Well, I found one of the journals from my late teens and it includes a page with a movie ticket sticky-taped to it. Beneath it is written:

Just like in the movie ‘Elizabeth’, when Elizabeth I keeps Joseph Fiennes alive as a constant reminder of how she was blinded by the affections of her heart, so too will I keep this movie ticket bought for me by the one who has broken my heart. 

Because having ones lover plot ones death in a treasonous conspiracy is quite similar to when the guy that took you to two-for-one Tuesday at Penrith Hoyts dumps you. Bloody hell. I think that pretty much concludes the argument doesn’t it? (Excuse me while I vomit quietly into a bag.) I shall keep that diary as a constant reminder of how unbelievably melodramatic and indulgent ones private writings can be. Thank you, social media, for saving me from myself.

Next…

220px-Magnolia_albumIt looks as though The Sky So Heavy will be released at the end of July. I have relinquished it for good and it’s strange to think that I won’t be working on it anymore, it has felt like a member of my family for the past four years. I won’t see it again until it is an actual book in my hands, by which time it will be far too late to make any changes. In the meantime I am in a strange land where I must decide which story to turn to next. I have a half-finished manuscript that I have been tinkering with off and on for the past seven (eek!) years. I feel it has so many faults and weak parts and needs so much work that I don’t know if it’s worth spending my little scraps of writing time on. But I’m not sure I can give up on it.

In the meantime I will try and tap into my main source of inspiration, music. I was listening to Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No.2  this morning and was reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson used it as his inspiration for his film, Magnolia. It will probably sound terribly naive, but I’m not aware of many other writers who have used singular albums or songs as the reference point for a story. (Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.) For me The Sky So Heavy grew, to a large extent, out of Radiohead’s The Gloaming. The mental image of a gloaming – a sort of murky twilight – combined with the words ‘Your alarm bells, they should be ringing’ was incredibly powerful to me. Now as the prospect of the dreaded ‘second book’ looms, I find myself feeling around for something new with enough potency to get the ball rolling.

A few weeks ago I heard The Smashing Pumpkins’ iconic track 1979 on the radio for the first time in ages. There is something effervescent about that tingling guitar riff (Is that what it’s called? If I’m going to write about this stuff I should find out.) and those opening lines ‘Shakedown, 1979/ Cool kids never have the time’. I am toying with a story set in the mid nineties and have a sketched out a character who listens to Pumpkins obsessively on her Discman. So we will see where that goes. I have found in the past, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before, that sometimes the key to understanding a character, for me, is getting a grip on what kind of music they would listen to, and then listen to it over and over again while I write. It’s not neccesarily music that I would chose to listen to, either. If that manuscript that I mentioned earlier on ever sees publication, you will find in it a character called Kate who I didn’t know well enough until I figured out that she would have listened to a lot of Lana Del Ray.

While all of that is going on, I will keep listening to The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me. It feels more adult than young adult, though. So you never know, a genre change may eventuate…

Writing and music and radioactive snow

I once read that Peter Carey needs complete uninterrupted silence for eight hours a day to write. My first thought was: what luxury, the second was that he needs to harden up. (Actually, he probably has enough cash that he doesn’t.) I must clarify that this was a while ago and maybe it wasn’t Peter Carey, maybe it was Tim Winton. (But I am more inclined to believe it of Carey than Winton, because I am a Winton fan.) Either way, if this was the case for most writers, especially those with children, it’s difficult to imagine that any books would get written at all.

My writing windows at the moment are one and a half hours max, twice a day if I’m lucky, three days a week. (Those three days are preschool days, and an hour and a half is the longest my baby will nap for.) This means I don’t have the luxury of staring into space picking lint off my sleeves for two hours before I get down to the business of writing actually words. (That’s what I used to do, before children. Interestingly, I wrote hardly anything, but had noticably lint-free jumper)

So what does one do, when time for accessing that very definite headspace needed to write fiction is so limited? My trick, as I wrote last post, is to listen to particular songs over and over while I write. The brain’s uncanny powers of memory and association kick in, and I can slip into the world I need to. Most of the time. Because the setting for The Sky So Heavy was so important to the story, this technique was crucial. It may surprise you, but i don’t in fact live in a icy tundra where radioactive snow falls from the sky. For some reason Radiohead’s Codex was my track of choice for conjuring such an environment in my headIMG_1242. When I hear the opening piano chords I automatically see a darkened highway, smothered in grey snow, illuminated by a single set of headlights. In my gut I can feel the twist of fear my protagonist feels as he steers the car through the alien landscape. His mouth dries as he passes the twisted carcasses of cars that have tried to make the same journey that he is attempting.

I’ve also found that music can be really useful in helping me nut out other aspects of my stories, characters in particular. Six years ago I started work on the story which will hopefully be my second novel. Unlike TSSH the protagonist is a teenage girl. Hannah is jaded in a way that only a fifteen year-old can be, although she is hurting in a way which far exceeds the experience of most people. She is also a smart arse. Hannah is trying to deal with a recent family tragedy, certainly unlike anything I have ever faced and I had difficulty tapping into the emotions that she was experiencing beyond the obvious cliches of grief and guilt.

I have completely redrafted the manuscript twice (which is fortunate because its earliest incarnations were pretty woeful) and it wasn’t until after leaving it in a drawer for two years, and then revisiting it briefly every three months or so for two years after that, that I was able to get to the core of the character. It was a song that got me there, Beach House’s Walk in the Park. I wasn’t even working on the story at the time, I was on the train listening to Beach House. But the lyrics, simple as they were, crystallised the character for me.

So now, as The Sky So Heavy is back with the editors and I wait, I will pull Hannah’s story out again for perhaps the hundredth read-through. I will listen to that song. And I will see if she has anything else to tell me.